Editor's note: Steve Henke is president of Harpeth Marketing, a Franklin, Tenn., firm providing outsourced marketing and consulting services to the market research industry. He can be reached at 615-415-3980 or at steve@harpethmarketing.com.

It’s only March and we’ve already had a busy conference season. February and March saw the inaugural Quirk’s Event, the CASRO Digital Conference, IIeX (in Europe), the PMRG and ARF, among many others. It’s a target-rich environment for exhibitors.

If your firm exhibits at events, I’ll bet you’ve seen this scenario play out: You return from the conference with a pocket full of business cards from prospects who stopped by your booth. It’s an impressive group of people. Then the phone rings. And you get called into a couple of meetings. A client’s project implodes and you have to jump in to help. Before you know it, it’s a couple of weeks later and that pile of business cards representing once-warm leads now has a thin layer of frost on it. The opportunities – and the urgency – have passed.

Twenty years ago I worked in the conference and exhibition industry. Back then, one of the statistics floating around the industry was that only 20 percent of all leads generated at an exhibition were ever followed-up on. That means 80 percent of everyone who visits with an exhibitor will not hear from them! That’s not only bad business, it’s just stupid!

There really is only one thing to worry about after an event: the follow-up! It’s the most important part of exhibiting. In this article, I will outline a three-step process for creating and executing your post-conference follow-up.

1. Data capture
After speaking with a hot prospect at your booth, you scribble down a few words on the back of her business card and stick it in your pocket or scan her badge information. Back at the office, you pull out her information and start reading through your scribbles. And then it hits you … you don’t really remember what you talked about, at least not in any detail. The same goes for virtually all of your booth conversations. There were just so many and follow-up becomes very difficult.

Successful follow-up begins with knowing what you want to understand about the attendees that come to your booth.

If you’re a research agency, you might want to know:

  • What type of research is the individual involved in?
  • What are they using research for?
  • Do they have an in-house research department or do they outsource? Or both?
  • Who have they been using for research? How’s that relationship?

Fieldwork firms, panel companies or technology providers will want to ask different questions.

Here are a few universal questions:

  • What is the type and size of the firm?
  • What’s the firm’s industry vertical?
  • Which of your services/products are they most interested in?
  • What is the level of urgency? Are they a hot prospect?
  • Have you agreed upon a specific follow-up?
  • Is there anything unique about this person that will help you remember the conversation?

That’s a lot to scribble on the back of a business card. An easy way to collect all of that data is to create a booth visitor form. When a prospect leaves your booth, fill out the form and staple their card to it. You now have the information for appropriate and targeted follow-ups with every single person who came to your booth.

2. The follow-up process
Capitalize on the opportunity and urgency by creating and following a checklist for your post-conference activities:

  • Immediately after you get back to the office, gather the booth staff to review every lead from the booth one-by-one. If you used a booth visitor form to capture information, review it to determine the best follow-up.
  • Don’t forget about people you met outside of the exhibit hall – during sessions, at social events, etc. Follow the same process as with a booth lead.
  • Make sure every name is entered into your in-house sales database/CRM system for future marketing. Tag the source as “ABC Conference, Year.”
  • Sort all leads into hot, warm and cool and assign each lead to the person responsible for follow-up. Create a plan for each group:
    • hot leads get a phone call within the first two days;
    • warm leads are sent a thank-you note and receive a call within two weeks; and
    • cold leads go into the database and receive monthly e-mails.
  • You want your sales leads to remember you. When you follow-up, cite something specific from the booth conversation. Try something like, “John, I enjoyed chatting with you in our booth at the ABC Conference last Wednesday. I hope our conversation about how online bulletin boards can help your new product launches was beneficial.”
  • Keep all follow-up appointments that were agreed upon at the conference.

Whatever your follow-up plan calls for, know that it will take more than one or two touches for it to convert to new business. Build in a lead-nurturing plan that keeps you, your firm and your services top-of-mind until the prospects are ready to buy.

3. Exhibiting ROI
Last in the process – but first in the minds of those who paid for the exhibit – is this: Did exhibiting at the conference deliver some sort of ROI?

To answer this question, all you need to do is figure out which leads generated new projects for your firm. Easier said than done, right? Leads that become clients during or immediately after a conference are rare. That’s why it’s important to track your sales leads for an extended period of time – six months or longer. It requires discipline but because of the sales cycles in our industry, it’s important to stick with it.

Done right, exhibiting can be an outstanding marketing vehicle that will help generate highly-qualified sales leads, launch a new product or service, generate market awareness and support your association. But it’s not what happens during the event that really matters, it’s what happens after. Your follow-up ultimately determines the level of success of your investment. It really is the most important part of exhibiting.

Good luck.

Free download: To help you get started with measuring ROI, we have created the exhibiting ROI worksheet (no e-mail required to download).